Indian filmmaker and TV personality Karan Johar has become the first Indian director to receive the Variety Vanguard Award, recognizing industry leaders who have significantly contributed to the global entertainment business. On Saturday, Variety’s executive editor of film and media, Tatiana Siegel, handed Johar his award at the third edition of the Red Sea Film Festival, followed by a career-spanning conversation.
The director-producer-TV host came out of a seven-year directing hiatus with the highly successful “Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani.” The pause, the filmmaker says, was due to his busy schedule as head of the production company Dharma Productions and the host of “Koffee With Karan,” one of India’s longest-running and most popular talk shows.
“Being a studio head, you have many responsibilities and I wanted to direct more often. My primary passion is being a director,” he said. “When I sleep at night, I think of stories, I don’t think of conversations I have on a talk show. I want to be remembered as a filmmaker.”
This year marks the 25th anniversary of Johar’s feature debut “Kuch Kuch Hota Hai.” When asked about how much the entertainment industry has changed since, the filmmaker highlighted the shifts brought by the digital revolution, calling it “heartbreaking.” “The magic of [print] is so different than what digital film can give you, but you grow to accept it,” he said.
“More than anything else, I feel like there is a tremendous loss of innocence,” he continued. “When I made my first film, a lot of it came from that innocence. Now you feel more policed by social media and the critics and you intellectualize your convictions. That is a downside to the growth of cinema.”
On a positive note, Johar pointed out that there are directors who have turned technology into an artform, such as George Lucas, James Cameron and Steven Spielberg. The latter, Johar said, “blends technology and emotion in possibly the most organic and beautiful way.” He also reiterated there are “special things happening all around the world,” particularly praising Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” and S. S. Rajamouli’s “RRR.”
Johar, the son of renowned Indian producer and founder of Dharma Productions Yash Johar, is no stranger to the nepotism discourse. The director quipped about how Hollywood was behind India’s film industry for once, with nepotism becoming a big topic of conversation in recent years. “We were leading on this one,” he remarked before going on to defend his choice to cast Alia Bhatt in 2012’s “Student of the Year,” the actor’s breakout role.
Bhatt, the daughter of director Mahesh Bhatt and actor Soni Razdan, went on to collaborate with Johar in several other films. “There was an instinct I had when I first saw Alia’s audition,” said the director. “She is in many ways my firstborn because the feeling is very parental. When she walked into the room, it didn’t matter who her father was, she just jumped out. Many years later, it’s been attributed to nepotism and it’s just unfortunate and not true.”
After establishing himself as a household name in India, does Johar ever think of crossing the waters to Hollywood? To answer the question, the director mentioned the aftermath of the success of 2010’s “My Name Is Khan.” The film, which was funded by then Fox’s Star Studios and released internationally by 20th Century Fox on the back of the worldwide success of Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire,” saw Johar traveling back and forth to Los Angeles for a period of two years.
“It took a couple of trips to Los Angeles to realize that it is all wonderful and you have a lot of meetings, but my heart is in my country and my cinema is in my heart,” he said. “I don’t want to leave that. I don’t want to make films without the language that’s raised me.”
“Holding this award today is an achievement,” he said of the Variety Vanguard Award. “I don’t need to make an English film to [win] it. It would be amazing to walk the Academy Awards red carpet, but I would like for it to be with a Hindi-language film.”
Still, the director does admit to having one Hollywood-related dream: to meet Meryl Streep. And not just a brief handshake or photo-op — Johar would like to have dinner with the Oscar-winning actor. “It’s the only item on my bucket list. If I could have an hour with her, I could die and go to heaven.”
He continued, “Her ability to be relevant in any decade is so admirable. The thing about relevance is that you have to evolve with the times, and there are a few artists who understand that more than others and I think she’s one of them.”
Coming back to the subject of home, Johar ended his talk by stating that the most common misconception foreign audiences have about Indian cinema is that “we are all about song and dance.”
“That misconception has pushed us many years behind,” he said. “Yes, we make song and dance movies and we are proud of them, but there are stories made in so many languages and from so many parts of India that are beautiful and should be viewed by audiences. Thank God streaming services are bringing it to the world.”
“The world needs to wake up to Indian stories and storytelling,” urged the director.